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Memphis Grizzlies 94- Los Angeles Clippers-85. Too Little Too Late

Apr 9, 2012; Memphis, TN, USA;  Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin (32) drives to the basket against Memphis Grizzlies center Marreese Speights (5) during the first half at the FedEx Forum.  Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-US PRESSWIRE
Apr 9, 2012; Memphis, TN, USA; Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin (32) drives to the basket against Memphis Grizzlies center Marreese Speights (5) during the first half at the FedEx Forum. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-US PRESSWIRE

Well, it looks like someone forgot to tell the Clippers that tonight's matchup with the Grizzlies was perhaps the most important game of their season. The Clips were outplayed for about 42 minutes tonight, dropping a critical game to the Grizzlies despite a furious 4th quarter comeback effort. Box score is here. More after the Jump

The west is so closely contested this season that this final slate of games is critical for about 11 teams in the standings, from those on the outside looking in (Phoenix, Utah, Portland) all the way up to the top, where San Antonio and Oklahoma City are battling for the top seed. For the Clippers,there was a realistic chance this evening of leapfrogging the Lakers, taking sole possession of third place while positioning themselves to win the Pacific division. With Memphis clawing at the Clippers heels, a win would also earn the Clips some breathing room at the 4 spot. But the importance of the game went beyond the standings. This was destined to be a playoff atmosphere in a hostile environment, a possible preview of their first round opponent. There is a great deal of experience value in to a team with young stars/contributors who have never been there before. There is a different level of intensity in playoff games, and the Clippers got a taste of that tonight. With a raucous crowd that seemed close to capacity, the
Grizzlies came out with purpose tonight, playing with a focus and intensity from the get go, and the Clippers did not handle it particularly well.

I watched this game for 3 and a half quarters wondering if Grizzlies were playing really well or if the Clippers were just playing really poorly. Truthfully it was probably a little bit of both. The Grizz have been red hot lately, winners in 8 of their last ten outings, including impressive wins against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat, and the Clippers may have just run into a buzz saw. Memphis played tenacious defense tonight, and the Clippers shooting percentage reflected it, as they shot below 40% for just about the entire game (cracking 40% only after a furious comeback effort in the final 5 minutes) and only made 4-18 3's. Interestingly enough, Memphis is known for their defense, creating turnovers and scoring easy points off of those turnovers- yet the Clips only turned the rock over 10 times total tonight. But everything Memphis did tonight was clutch, making big plays at key times. When they did get turnovers, they capitalized on them. It also seemed like every time the Clips made a push tonight, Memphis responded with a big play. Rudy Gay and OJ Mayo each hit a big threes to stop Clipper Runs, and Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol (who played a great game tonight, to the tune of 18-8-7 with 2 blocked shots) had a pair of old fashioned three point plays under similar circumstances. In addition there were numerous offensive rebounds. Memphis wanted this game more from the outset.

Yet it seemed like the effort was not really there for much of the game for the Clippers. Again, not to take anything away from Memphis, which is clearly a very good, very deep ball club, and all their core guys made shots tonight. But the Clippers team defense was particularly poor tonight, watching long rebounds go to the Grizzlies was a regular occurrence. The Clippers defense got caught ball watching countless times, and rotations on defense were often slow and ineffective. Watching Memphis play a zone was impressive, as they rotated double teams and frustrated the Clippers, particularly the Wings, who struggled mightily tonight (Randy Foye, Nick Young, Caron Butler were a combined 7-29 from the field, and Tony Allen wasn't playing). The defensive effort of Memphis caused Clippers offense to go completely stagnant for huge stretches in the game, with deep shots to try and beat the shot clock happening way too often. When the Clippers went to Zone, they frequently gave up open looks, and looked like they were always scrambling late. Playing mostly man to man, there was a stretch early in the third quarter where Memphis was running a set with Marc Gasol in the high post,running back cuts with their wings and screening for Conley, and it gave the Clippers fits. If the Clips take one thing away from this game for a potential first round matchup with these guys, I hope it's that they need to game plan for that set.

The Clippers made an impressive comeback attempt in the 4th quarter, triggered by some great defensive pressure by Eric Bledsoe and Chris Paul that led to a slew of turnovers by Memphis. The Clips got the lead
down to 8 points, which was about as low as it had been since the 2nd quarter. But a 3 point play by Chris Paul with 1:22 left cut the lead to 5. After a Memphis turnover and official review, the Clips were essentially able to get a free timeout, and capitalized, with Blake getting the ball from Paul inside the free throw line, then finding DJ
underneath for a dunk. In spite of it all, the Clips were there again with a chance to steal a win on the road. They played about 20 seconds of great defense on the ensuing Memphis possession, but OJ Mayo found a back cutting Rudy Gay for a dunk, and the outcome was never again in question.

I mentioned before the importance of this type of game, but I am a strong believer that a team can benefit from a loss. Perhaps it's just club optimism talking again, but I think this loss should spark an improved defensive effort in their next outing. It's a tough stretch of games coming up, but nothing could prepare the Clippers for the
playoffs any better. Wednesday night in OKC will bring another opportunity for the Clips to show they can handle the playoff atmosphere. With any luck they wont wait until halfway through the 4th quarter to start.

Some thoughts:

Memphis is a deep team. There is no superstar, but they have three guys on that level just below in Gay, Gasol, and Randolph, any of whom could score 30+ and win a game for their ball club. 10 guys scored tonight, 6 of them in double figures. They will be trouble in the playoffs for anyone, particularly if they have home court advantage.

Deandre Jordan: Mixed bag type of game for DJ in my opinion. His line looks good (14 pts, 14 boards), and he definitely made some great plays. The next step for DJ is sustaining that effort and not having any lapses, particularly on the defensive end.

Mike Smith: The Clippers color commentator has apparently supplemented
his degree from BYU with a Masters from the Mike Dunleavy school of Fashion. For the record, I like it.